Jefferson County school board mulling whether to appeal state management as questions linger on impact of takeover

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A day after interim Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis recommended a state takeover at Jefferson County Public Schools following a 14-month management audit, members of the local school board are still weighing their options.

The Jefferson County Board of Education has until May 30 to appeal or accept Lewis’ decision. An appeal would trigger a hearing before the Kentucky Board of Education, which would determine the fate of JCPS barring other legal action.

State management would occur through the 2018-19 school year, although the state board could extend it up to three years and then again extend it past that period. Lewis wrote that after the 2018-19 school year under a state takeover, he would evaluate whether to recommend the district be placed in the less restrictive designation of state assistance.

Linda Duncan, who represents District 5 on the local school board, said she and other school board members met with JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio on Tuesday to discuss the audit and Lewis’ recommendation to place the district under state management.

“It’s one of those things that all of us have to absorb, get our questions answered because there are things that are not clear about even some of the deficiencies,” Duncan told WDRB News Tuesday.

“We’ve read it, and now we’re processing our options,” she added. “Right now I still represent District 5. We still have the authority of the Jefferson County School Board.”

Lewis has recommended that Pollio remain in charge of JCPS operations rather than appointing a state manager. But Pollio would be required to meet weekly with Kentucky Department of Education Associate Commissioner Kelly Foster, and Lewis wrote that lacking progress could cause him to shift more authority to Foster or name a state manager.

The local school board would continue to serve, but only in an advisory role.

“We're still trying to figure out what advisory means for a school board,” Duncan said. “We don't have a good precedent to follow for that.”

The lengthy audit and Lewis’ letter to Pollio and Diane Porter, chair of the Jefferson County Board of Education, lay out several deficiencies found at JCPS, some of them already made public and the subjects of corrective action plans implemented by district leaders.

Some of the areas highlighted in the audit and letter include reported instances of physical restraint and seclusion by teachers in the district’s Head Start program, fiscal management, reporting inaccuracies in career and technical education data, noncertified staff teaching and supervising classes, ineffective internal investigations and potential testing improprieties.

Lewis praised Pollio’s leadership but said the audit findings demonstrate “a system with deep-seated organizational and culture challenges.”

“The current state of JCPS is not the fault of any one leader or group,” he wrote in the letter. “Instead, under the leadership of many and over a long period of time, serious challenges emerged and in many cases were permitted to fester.

“The nature of the challenges in JCPS are such that transformation will require years of dedicated and consistent district leadership, significant intervention on the part of KDE, and making oftentimes difficult management and governance decisions that put the safety and well-being of children first, at all costs.”

Pollio made the case Monday that the district has made strides to address issues raised by KDE in his 10 months as acting and full-time superintendent.

Duncan, too, said local leaders should be left in charge of JCPS operations.

“I really believe that we are best equipped to solve our own problems,” she said.

Questions still linger

While some Kentucky school districts have been placed under state management, it’s unclear how such a designation would impact JCPS classrooms.

Lisa Willner, vice chair of the Jefferson County Board of Education, said takeovers in other states have “not gone well for kids.”

“Teacher turnover is very, very fast,” she said Monday. “It's very hard to retain good teachers.”

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, said JCPS educators “are very concerned because they don't know what this will mean for them.”

“I think parents are also not sure what it means, and a lot of that will depend on what the state chooses to do with the takeover,” he told WDRB News Tuesday.

“The audit report focuses on some very specific things,” he continued. “We don’t know if a state takeover will only focus on the specific things in the audit or if it will go beyond the scope of that. They will have the authority to go beyond that and change other school board policies, for example, and that’s the big question mark, I think, that’s hanging out there.”

Another question for McKim is whether some JCPS schools will be converted to charter schools. While charter schools weren’t funded in this year’s legislative session, McKim wondered whether schools converted into charters would get money through the JCPS budget.

Such a move, McKim said, would “cannibalize” school funding at JCPS.

“And that might or might not withstand a legal test,” he said.

The audit also criticized the district's student assignment plan, which auditors wrote "presents challenges to transportation staff who manage the bus routing process" and "has a distinct negative impact on the most at-risk JCPS students."

A district and community panel has been reviewing the JCPS student assignment plan since October, hoping to recommend changes to implement for the 2020-21 school year.

Dena Dossett, the district's chief of data management, planning and program evaluation, said JCPS officials still need to evaluate the audit when asked Tuesday how a state takeover will impact the student assignment plan.

"We know that parents are really engaged with their child's school and really value having a lot of input into their child's educational setting, and so in terms of state management, we really need to take some time to understand what that report means," she told reporters during a break in the student assignment review committee's meeting.

Katherine Wilson, a member of the review panel whose grandchildren attend JCPS schools, said she would like to see changes to the student assignment plan in order to promote more diversity in district schools. She's also in favor of charter schools "as long as they're placed in strategic areas where they are needed most."

Moving to a different approach like neighborhood schools would create more diversity problems based on the makeup of Louisville and Jefferson County communities, she said.

"You've got the West End and then you've got other areas, so if you had a neighborhood school, some people are going to say that's not right because the majority of the people in the West End are black," Wilson said. "So it's very, very difficult to decide what's right. That's why they need a lot of parent input, to see what the parents are saying. What do they want?"

Asked about Lewis’ recommendation of a state takeover at JCPS on Tuesday, Gov. Matt Bevin praised Pollio’s “phenomenal” work as superintendent but declined to say whether he supported the decision to place the district under state management.

“I defer to their judgment,” Bevin said, referring to Lewis and the Kentucky Board of Education. “I’m not sure that it’s definitive that’s what they’re going to do yet. I think it’s what’s being recommended as a course of action, but again, these things come in a lot of shapes and forms, and this is one that’s going to use more of the people already in the place, it would seem, than has historically been the case.”

The governor said a state takeover at JCPS “isn’t about politics” or “who’s elected to what,” but McKim said he’s skeptical that politics didn’t play a role in deciding to recommend a state takeover at JCPS.

The Kentucky Board of Education met to discuss personnel behind closed doors a day after Bevin appointed six new members, and former Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, the board’s only employee, tendered his negotiated resignation after the panel emerged from executive session April 17.

Pruitt was expected to recommend state assistance for JCPS, and McKim believes a takeover was the ultimate goal.

“Everyone can speculate on how political it is, but they certainly were in a hurry to do this,” he said. “That causes people to, I think, suspect that they had an agenda to do a takeover.”

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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